Our lanky teenage-looking pilot closed his eyes and prayed quietly before takeoff into the immense, emerald-green void of the Ecuadorian Amazon. His murmurs were indecipherable through the roar of the old rattling Cessna operated by Aerotsentsak, the airline owned by the Achuar indigenous nation.
Soon enough the purple plane pushed hard through a violent rainstorm, but finally we were flying high about the thunderheads southwestward toward the Peruvian border. My companions were Juan Carlos Garcia, a seasoned Amazon guide and founder of Trek Ecuador, Maria Belén Páez, president of Fundación Pachamama, and her 17-year-old daughter Micaela.
Maria had been here many times before. She explained that the Fundación is working with the Achuar communities, and her many years of work among the Achuar stems from her strong belief that indigenous people can provide powerful guidance and teaching for achieving a vision of a thriving, just and sustainable world – sometimes very different from ours.
I was impressed by her unwavering dedication and also excited to be exploring this most pristine part of the Amazon rainforest. Deep in the heart of the Oriente, Ecuador’s far-eastern Amazon basin near the Peruvian border, we planned to paddle into Achuar territory among prolific jungle wildlife. The territory is one of the most biodiverse forest areas on Earth and also the best preserved globally, claiming more than 10,000 plant species and 530 species of birds — a true natural gem to explore!
Far removed from modern civilization, the Achuar nation is comprised of 68 indigenous communities—about 8,000 people in all—living in an area of more than 1.75 million acres of untamed jungle. In their territory, Ecuador’s last large tract of untouched Amazon tropical rainforest, settlement and resource extraction has not yet been permitted, and the indigenous communities have legal titles to their land. As a means to preserve their land and subsistence culture, the Achuar have created a vast wildlife reserve, inviting ecotourism and fostering “green” development.
Our journey would be part of helping to preserve their lives—trail blazing and developing kayaking and hiking opportunities for future adventure tourists. A paddling trip here could be a great future complement to Natural Habitat Expeditions’ successful kayaking adventures in the Galapagos. And it would fit perfectly with our core ideology of conservation and ecotourism.
We descended steeply toward the community of Chichirat, onto its 500-meter-long red dirt airstrip carved thinly from the forest. Upon landing, we were welcomed by the reserved villagers. This included the old village shaman, our local guide Reuben, and a bunch of strong women who were hired to carry our gear down to the kayaks tied up by the river.
To paddle the Bobonaza River was amazing, following a green and winding waterway through untouched wilderness. The air was rent by the shrieks of small groups of scarlet macaws while in the distance howler monkeys called with a primordial wail. Juan Carlos told us not to worry about the piranhas in the water and pointed out the small squirrel monkeys playing in the canopy high above. Iridescent blue morpho butterflies glinted in the sun. This would surely be a quiet and blissful place for paddling.
Following an afternoon of timeless kayaking, the terraces along the river’s left bank opened up to a small cluster of traditional Achuar straw-thatched houses. Under their roofs, reserved women cooked food at the open fire pit, featuring fish from the river, manioc, plantains, and homemade hot pepper sauce. The men were drinking the popular local drink nijiamanch, made from fermented manioc and served in beautifully decorated broad clay cups.
From this take-out we hiked a short way up to Tiinkias, a bit larger Achuar settlement where eight families currently reside. Just another 20 minutes’ walk from this village, a small jungle camp has been erected by the community as a base for tourists to truly experience both the traditional Achuar way of life and also the Amazonian flora and fauna as it exists in a pristine state. The Tiinkias Ecotourism Center is built on a forested knoll in traditional Achuar style with thatched roofs and no walls—we slept on cots on elevated platforms, under nets, and ate communally—magically immersed in the surrounding jungle!
The most important natural attraction near the camp is the Wankanim Preserve and the blackwater lagoon located within it, home to several representative species including giant otters, several species of monkeys, several species of caiman, many species of birds, etc. Since no hunting or fishing has taken place since 2003, the preserve offers great opportunities for observing wildlife.
The community invited us for a feast of river fish and plantains –all served on a huge freshly cut banana leaf on the bare ground – we reneged, however, on the fresh grubs being cooked up in the fire next to us. I guess we missed a delicacy! The Achuar were naturally hospitable and openly shared their community fellowship, music, dance and laughter in abundance, in an unpolished way.
One of the highlights at Tiinkias was the visit that night of an older shaman to our camp. He quietly prepared and drank a concoction of hallucinogenic plant extract – the “natem” — which would prepare him for a drug-induced spiritual ceremony. Maria had asked for a healing session, and in the night under the thatched roof he was whistling and shaking leaves around her in the pitch-dark. This whistling seemed to conjure a protective field while the leaves were fanning her body and dusting energy into the air around her. He pressed his hands on her body and the sounds of sucking, violent harking and spitting were heard — as if he was draining evil spirits from her. In the morning Maria had a rejuvenated glow about her.
The next couple of days we continued paddling, boating and exploring. We even paid an unexpected visit to a Peruvian military outpost, due a change in the river’s course! We finally ended up at the acclaimed Kapawi Ecolodge, also run by the Achuars. The lodge is close to the Pastanza River, and from the lodge pier, we could see pods of pink Amazon freshwater dolphins playing shyly in the water. Later, we paddled close to them.
As we flew back, jerking violently through the clouds above the untouched jungle of Achuar territory, I pondered. What would the future offer these truly naturalistic people, still hunting adroitly with blow pipes and honoring their old shamanistic rituals? Under these natives’ ancestral lands lie some of the richest unexploited oil reserves in South America.
Modern Ecuador is aspiring while the Achuar shaman is quietly whistling in the dark. Perhaps it’s time to pray?
On December 4, 2013, just five days after I left Ecuador, plainclothes police officers in Quito appeared at the offices of Fundación Pachamama and proceeded to shut down their facilities. The government’s action came on the heels of indigenous protests against Ecuador’s plans to open some 6.5 million acres of rainforest to new oil drilling.